Being undead isn’t so bad. Your clothes are filthy, you could probably do with a little more sun, and the quality of conversation is somewhat diminished, but I didn’t mind being a zombie for a day. I was given this opportunity when Summit Entertainment decided to fly me up to Montreal to the set of Warm Bodies, the new film from director Jonathan Levine (50/50). The film follows R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who falls in love with the non-zombie Julie (Teresa Palmer) after eating her boyfriend’s brains.
I’ve been on a few set visits, but for Warm Bodies, Summit invited me and my fellow movie journalists to be zombie extras. In addition to interviewing Levine, Hoult, Palmer, co-star Rob Corddry, and producer Bruna Papandrea, we got to go through the zombification process without the nasty biting-and-dying part. Hit the jump to read about my visit to the set of Warm Bodies.
It’s October 29, 2011, and the day begins by driving us down to Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. Before we got in the make-up chairs, they took pictures of us pre-zombie. I gave a big smile because A) I didn’t want my “Before” photo to look like a mug shot and B) I was looking forward to being undead.
After taking my before photo, I put on a wardrobe they gave me, but the costume designer angrily rejected my pullover because it was red, and he shouted at the department to “Burn it!” (I have never worn a piece of clothing that made another person so angry, and I include the time I accidentally wore an “I See Dead People” t-shirt to a nursing home.) I would later discover that R wears a red hoodie, which helps him standout against the background and crowd scenes. They gave me a blue jacket and then I was on my way to the make-up department.
We were all basically in a giant, concrete room where make-up tables had been set-up along the walls. The make-up and costume department was basically a production line where once a make-up artist finished with one extra, the next extra filled the seat.
My make-up artist, Alexis, had fun making me look dead. My skin was made sallow, black veins were added around my neck and face, I got some nice blood added to the corners of my mouth and around my left ear. My pants had a rip around the knee, so Alexis and I decided to add some blood there because that’s where my “character” was bitten. Before I went in, I was a little concerned if there would be the zombie-movie staple of contact lenses, but I learned that no one is strapping on the lenses for the film and that everyone just got black, sunken eyes, so it’s the extra’s job to make them look dull and vacant. I was already ahead of the game.
While there were certain parameters the artists had to work in (pale skin, dark veins, nothing too gory), they had the freedom to decide how much vein-work they would use and how much blood to add. That may not seem like much, but when I looked around at all the other extras, the effect worked. Everyone looked like they were at different stages of zombification. The only real shortcoming was the lack of gore. You won’t see any Walking Dead-level effects, possibly because they would draw focus away from the main characters, and also because the film is aiming for a PG-13 rating.
Once my make-up was finished, I moved over to have my hair done. It was if someone had said, “Hey, Matt! Here’s a reminder of all that gross crap you put in your hair back in high school in a futile attempt to look cool! It wasn’t cool. Now you will see how uncool it was.” To be fair, the Warm Bodies hair-stylists weren’t trying to make anyone look cool, but they were still rubbing loads of crap into our hair that gave it the texture of barbed wire. Fake mud and fake grime were massaged into my scalp and then I was coated with a nice sprinkling of dust.
Despite my grime-dome and tattered clothes, I still needed to look filthier so they directed me to the “Dirt Department”. In the department, I stood alongside two other extras, and we each had an artist who would add more dark paint and mud coloring to our clothing. With the process complete, I determined that my character was bitten and then rolled down a muddy slope before landing in a construction zone. Looking around at the other extras, I believe this had been a common occurrence during the apocalypse.
We then made our way to set, but the scene requiring the extras hadn’t occurred yet. Instead, we went to some monitors to watch some takes of Julie and R walking down a hallway. Then we moved to what was formerly the box office for the stadium so we could do interviews.
First, we interviewed producer Bruna Papandrea. She talked about how she got involved with the project, working with Jonathan Levine, trying to appeal to fans of the zombie genre, getting inside R’s head, how zombies get it on, and more. Click here for the full interview.
After Papandera left, we waited a little while, and then Corddry entered the room. Corddry plays R’s best friend and fellow zombie, M. “Mmmm…smells like marketing in here!” he said to the group as he walked to his seat. We then talked about the physicality of his character, working with Cirque du Soleil to get the right movements, his appreciation of the zombie genre, his [adult swim] TV series Children’s Hospital, and much more. Click here for the full interview.
Corddry then had to return to set, we did a little more waiting (whether you’re a journalist or a member of the cast and crew, waiting is the majority of your time on set), and then the lovely Teresa Palmer came to talk to us. We talked about a variety of subjects including the scene they were filming that day, why R doesn’t eat her, working with John Malkovich (who plays Julie’s father), her favorite zombie movie, the influence of Romeo and Juliet, and playing against actors who have a restricted range of emotions since they’re playing zombies. Click here for the full interview.
After we finished interviewing Palmer, we were asked if we wanted to be put near the back or front of the crowd. If we were put in the front, we would possibly have to stay late to maintain continuity. However, this crowd of intrepid journalists doesn’t half-ass our portrayals of zombie/infected half-dead people. We volunteered to be put near the front, much to the chagrin of some of our fellow extras. I was put in the second row, and the woman in front of me was perfectly nice, but some of the other journalists told me that they could hear a lot of angry French coming from the mouths of nearby Québécois extras.
It’s understandable. You spend hours going through wardrobe, getting made-up, and then you have spend most of your day just standing around and waiting in this uncomfortable get-up, so a little screen-time wouldn’t be the worst thing ever. Some are doing extra work as a part-time job, others are using it as a networking opportunity, and a few think they’ll somehow get their big break and be discovered for their daring performance as Zombie #136. Personally, I was hoping the camera would notice me just so I could point out the half-second of my zombified face to friends and family when the Blu-ray came out. However, based on my position, I doubt you’ll see me in the movie. You have a better chance of catching fellow movie website writers Devin Faraci, Evan Dickson, and Max Evry in the shot. Thankfully, a photographer was on set with us, and here’s the completion of my zombie process:
[Warning: minor spoilers ahead]
The scene we were shooting was the climax where M and R have rallied the regular zombies to fight against the “Bonies”. Warm Bodies‘ take on zombies is that they aren’t really dead as much as they’re infected. They can slightly communicate, they have the potential to heal (R and M both have scars), and most importantly, they can possibly become human again. The bonies, on the other hand, are too far gone, and have become ugly, primal monsters. The bonies will be completely CGI, and we spotted several actors dressed in the familiar grey-spandex with tracking dots. They were constantly stretching and it sounds like the bonies will be very much in the mold of the rage-zombies from 28 Days Later (a movie frequently cited by everyone we interviewed; the other that got name-dropped was Return of the Living Dead since those zombies can talk).
In the scene, M walks through the zombie crowd and after saying hello to M and R, M says that the zombies behind him are “ready for a fight.” R, referring to the bonies, tells M, “They’re coming.” Then M looks up and says, “Already here.” In the film, there will probably be a cut to a glass ceiling and a bunch of bonies trying to make their way in. We went through the process of having the crowd wrangler tell the extras to ahead, and then wait for the signal (it was supposed to be someone off-screen shouting “Bonies!” but then for most of the takes the guy just shouted “Up!”), rehearsing with the stand-ins, and then running through the scene for real. It took a few takes, and I have no idea how it will look. The series of takes we would do later that day would be slightly trickier.
We were about to settle in for lunch, but then we were called back for a lengthy interview with Levine. We talked about influential zombie films, creating their own rules, working with his largest budget to date, what he learned from 50/50, balancing the horror and romantic elements, and a whole lot more. Click here for the full interview.
He then showed us a clip from the movie where R, having protected/kidnapped Julie and taken her back to his plane (he lives at the airport), tries to give her a blanket even though she’s scared and confused. He then goes over to a record player where he puts on a Guns n’ Roses song, Julie notes that R also listens to Frank Sinatra, R comes back to the aisle across from Julie, and lays down his head to sleep. Levine said he preferred the Guns n’ Roses track, but they hadn’t gotten the rights, and while they did have the rights to Sinatra, he wasn’t sure if they would go with the legendary crooner. Anyone who’s seen 50/50 or The Wackness knows one of Levine’s gifts is music selection, and I’m sure whatever track he chooses will fit with the scene.
But as for the content of the scene and the tone it’s setting for the movie, it could go either way. I’m not going to make a judgment of the entire film based on three minutes of rough footage. I asked Levine how much “zombie” we’ll see in R because based on this one scene, he could just be a guy with pale skin and brain damage. The relationship between R and Julie could end up being very corny or very sweet, but I’m betting on the latter since Levine has also shown he knows how to capture the heart of relationships. (I wrote this back in October 2011, and the recent trailers make it look like Levine hit the mark on this movie).
We then made our way to lunch as the rest of the extras were finishing up eating. Afterwards, we got back to the set, and while we were told to take our original positions, the blocking had changed so I basically just found a new spot in the back. The new take was still the same action, but now we would have to make way for R and Julie to run through the crowd while pretending that we were fighting off Bonies crashing through the sequence. The first time did not go well as we all just sort of mimed the extras director’s original action and sunk to the floor as if we were about to do “Thriller”. Eventually, we learned that we should pretend we’re fighting off invisible monsters and while it feels silly in the moment, it’s still a lot of fun. I’m hoping the Blu-ray has behind-the-scenes footage of us fighting off invisible uber-zombies. It probably looks hilarious.
We then moved back to the interview room to talk with Hoult. Hoult struck me as an incredibly sweet, thoughtful person. He didn’t rush to answer a question, you could tell he was really thinking about his response, and he was comfortable saying “I don’t know.” However, he was also quite eloquent and if you’re betting on young actors who will be in-demand ten years from now, he’s a smart bet. We talked about eating brains, zombie school, influential zombie movies, playing an unconventional hero, communication without words, and much more. Click here for the full interview.
Since the production was moving on to a new take with new blocking, our zombie services were no longer required for the day. We went back down to the make-up department and I expected some super-special miracle spray that would blast away all of the make-up in one spritz. Instead, I was handed a couple wet naps, a towel, some soap, and told to go to the bathroom. When it came to getting the grime off, it worked surprisingly fast and surprisingly well (I got rid of the gunk in my hair when I took a shower back at the hotel). I was grateful that we had ducked in before the horde of other extras had arrived.
As I said, being dead was pretty fun, and judging by what I saw on the set and the latest trailers, so is Warm Bodies. The film opens February 1st.
Here’s more from my visit to the set of Warm Bodies:
- Director Jonathan Levine Talks about Zombie Movies, What He Learned from 50/50, Horror and Romance, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Nicholas Hoult Talks about Eating Brains, Playing an Unconventional Hero, Communicating without Words, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Teresa Palmer Talks about Her Favorite Zombie Movie, Having a Relationship with a Zombie, the Influence of Romeo and Juliet, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Rob Corddry Talks about Learning Zombie Moves from Cirque du Soleil, His Love of Zombie Movies, Children’s Hospital, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies
- Producer Bruna Papandrea Talks Working with Director Jonathan Levine, Aiming for a PG-13 Rating, Zombie Sex, and More on the Set of Warm Bodies